Heralded high school recruit Ralph Sampson, when he announced his college decision stumbled over the name of the school and partially said the University of Kentucky (the school which turned out to be his second choice) before announcing his intentions of attending the University of Virginia. (A correlated misconception among North Carolina fans is that Sampson stumbled over the name, partially saying North Carolina, who had also recruited Sampson).

The Facts

Ralph Sampson
Ralph Sampson was one of the most heralded high school recruits of all time. At 7-foot-4, he towered over his competition, even those he was destined to face in the college and eventually the professional ranks. Yet he maintained excellent timing, quickness and shooting skills for a big man.

He played high school basketball in Harrisonburg, Virginia, a small city nestled in the Shenandoah Valley in the western part of the state. But that didn't prevent him from getting noticed by schools all around the country. He was recruited by all the powerhouse schools, however the choice came down to four schools, Virginia which was not much more than an hour's drive away in Charlottesville, Virginia Tech, North Carolina and Kentucky.

Finally, after whittling the list down to two, the University of Virginia and the University of Kentucky, he called a press conference where he announced his decision to attend Virginia on May 31, 1979. There was no hesitation in his initial announcement, and it was clear that he chose the University of Virginia.

The following day Sampson made good on his announcement by signing his letter of intent with the University of Virginia, where he went on to win three consecutive national player of the year awards. One area he did not succeed in, however, was winning a national championship (a stated goal in his press conference.) The Cavaliers made the Final Four his sophomore year, but did not advance and Virginia never got closer than that for the remainder of Sampson's four-year career.

Sampson (shown with his mother Sarah) ended the suspense the day after his annoucement by signing a Letter of Intent with the University of Virginia


Sampson struggled with the decision between choosing the University of Virginia and the University of Kentucky and stated during the press conference that he still hadn't made up his mind as late as the morning of the press conference. Kentucky had been number one on Sampson's list earlier, and the Kentucky coaches had been informed by those close to the situation that Sampson had decided to attend UK.

Virginia didn't have much notable basketball success in its history, but the school was well regarded in other areas, and was relatively close to his home. In addition the Cavaliers, under head coach Terry Holland, were starting to put together some talented teams. They also played in the Atlantic Coast Conference, arguably the strongest conference in the nation at the time and one with excellent national exposure.

Kentucky was on the opposite spectrum in terms of historical success in basketball, and had recently won their fifth NCAA Championship. In addition, UK was in the process of signing one of the most heralded incoming classes of all-time, even without the services of Sampson. Kentucky had signed an immensely athletic point guard from nearby Lexington Lafayette in Dirk Minniefield (a 2nd team Parade AA), a smooth-shooting small forward out of Tennessee in Derrick Hord (1st team Parade AA), a rugged physical forward out of Shelbyville, KY in Charles Hurt (3rd team Parade AA) along with a big 6-9 player from Indiana in Tom Heitz. The most important piece of Kentucky's incoming class was that of Sam Bowie. Bowie was a 7-foot-1 center out of Lebanon, PA and had many of the same type of attributes and basketball skills as Sampson, which made him much more than just a big body. Sampson and Bowie were two of the players who competed for high school national player-of-the-year honors, in what turned out to be one of the most highly regarded years for high school seniors in prep history. (Other players in that class included Isiah Thomas, Dominique Wilkins, James Worthy, Steve Stipanovich, Rod Foster, Dale Ellis, Byron Scott, Rodney McCray, and Clark Kellogg among others.)

1979 UK Freshman Class (l-r): Sam Bowie, Charles Hurt, Dirk Minniefield, Derrick Hord and Tom Heitz.

Bowie vs. Sampson
Due to each of the player's skills, it was not impossible that the two could play together and even complement each other on the court. (In fact, later in Bowie's career, he did play with a talented center and UK Coach Joe B. Hall was successfully able to devise an offense which utilized each player's talents while on the floor at the same time.) As the possibility that Bowie and Sampson might actually sign with Kentucky became closer to reality, the imaginations of UK fans nationwide began to run wild imagining the pair together. Two players with such skills and size would be almost impossible for an opposing team to stop on the offensive end, and it would be equally difficult to score inside or rebound. Quite frankly, the possibility of Bowie and Sampson together on the same team presented one of the most intriguing and formidable frontlines in the history of basketball.

As mentioned above, Sampson never was able to fulfill his dream of playing on a national championship team, a goal which had a much more likely chance of happening if he had teamed with Bowie at UK.

As for Kentucky, the highly regarded class kept the Wildcats high in the national rankings throughout their career, however they were unsuccessful in the post-season and experienced a number of embarrassing early-round losses in the NCAA Tournament. Bowie played well during his freshman year and was impressive enough to earn a spot on the ill-fated 1980 US Olympic team (where he led the team in rebounding and was second in points scored during exhibitions against NBA all-star teams). He went on to have a fantastic sophomore year (earning All-American honors), however he was injured prior to his junior year and ended up sitting out two years with injuries. He returned for the 1983-84 season, which saw him team with another All-American center Melvin Turpin and a future All-American in Kenny Walker to reach the Final Four, however they were beaten in the national semifinals by the eventual champion Georgetown Hoyas.

Both Sampson and Bowie (despite his collegiate injuries) were still highly regarded out of college and were drafted extremely high in the NBA draft. (Sampson #1 overall by the Houston Rockets in 1983 and Bowie #2 by the Portland Trailblazers in 1984). And while each had (what is today often overlooked) success in the pro ranks, each eventually succumbed to injuries during their careers which greatly hampered their abilities on the court and eventually cut short their careers.

When Sampson spoke during his press conference, the initial announcement was clearly for Virginia.

But as the press conference progressed and Sampson started to answer reporters' questions, the firmness of Sampson's commitment to UVa seemed less and less certain. When asked whether Bowie signing with Kentucky had a detrimental effect on Kentucky's chances with Sampson due to possibly losing playing time, he said the following:

When later asked about what Sampson would like to say to the Kentucky fans, he seemed to leave the door open even wider that he could potentially change his mind and enroll in Lexington:

JPS Note: Perhaps the purported mix-up in mentioning Kentucky instead of Virginia happened later in the news conference, however I haven't heard all of the press conference to know for sure. If anyone has a tape of the remainder of the conference or the particular clip in question, I would appreciate hearing it.

Sampson at the press conference

It's been reported that later in his career, Sampson did make an appearance in Rupp Arena as part of the Pan-American team in an exhibition game. Despite concerns over their reaction, the Kentucky fans gave him a standing ovation.

The question of how things could have turned out differently, still haunts old Kentucky fans to this day. On a recent ESPN Chat with Sampson (Feb 2002), a UK fan brought up what might have been.

Return to Kentucky Wildcat Basketball Page.

Page updated May 2, 2015